Sunday, December 29, 2013

Book Review: A Study in Silks by Emma Jane Holloway

A Study in Silks
A Study in Silks by Emma Jane Holloway

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Evelina Cooper's world consists of steam-powered machines, fancy-dress parties, and the mysterious death of a servant in her best friend, Imogen's, house. This is Evelina's year to come out in Victorian society, that is, Victorian society of the steam-powered, speculative variety. All she should be concerned with is obtaining an invitation to be greeted by Queen Victoria, certainly not spending her time worrying over the untimely demise of Grace Child. Unfortunately for her, Evelina is the niece of renowned detective Sherlock Holmes, and like her brilliant uncle, finds the mundane, drudge of existence to be utterly tiresome. So, Evelina involves herself in catching Grace's murderer, not only to serve justice to the poor, murdered girl, but also to exercise the talents she has been given, both the intellect of the Holmes family, but also the magical talents of the Coopers. Evelina literally has a foot in two worlds, torn between the high society and promises of a good match, possibly even with Tobias Roth, the man her heart yearns for, or the world of the circus and magic where she grew up, and the Indomitable Niccolo whose very touch sparks unspeakable magic and passion between them. Evelina must decide which world to involve herself in, but both are fraught with tension, danger, and intrigue.

Ms. Holloway is a master storyteller. Even the characters that I do not want to like based on moral grounds (cough, Tobias, cough), I still end up liking. Her villains are solidly crafted, and her world is vividly devised. I love all of the steam-powered machinery, both the ones that are man-made, and the ones that have a little additional touch of magic to make them work like Evelina's Mouse and Bird. Steampunk fiction is rare, especially of the variety that I would like to read. I love this delightful world that Ms. Holloway has so flawlessly created with her agile and clean writing style. It's beautiful and vibrant and I wish I could see this world for myself.

Now, on to the reasons for only giving 3 stars. Ms. Holloway uses too many voices. The book is supposedly about Evelina, but because of the many other characters that we follow, there can be 30 or 40 pages where Evelina is simply gone. And unfortunately for the author, those tend to be the pages I like best. I like following the villains of the story because they are much more interesting than the heroine. I even loved the chapters from Tobias' view, and especially the ones from Nick's perspective. On top of that, Evelina is tormented by romantic afflictions of the most repetitive nature. I could understand ruminating over her dangerous feelings for Nick once or maybe even twice, but any more than that slows the story down and had me almost wishing to skip ahead to some action. This book is 531 pages long. She could have told the story more concisely in half the time and I would have finished it in 2 days instead of 9. Her plot and her characters are bogged down by too much information and too many voices.

The other point against the book is the heroine's supposed cleverness. She's not that clever, and a reader of even the remotest intelligence will note this fact. Everything Evelina discovers is told to her by someone else. Her investigative skills are sadly lacking, and it's a bad sign when the reader is 4 steps ahead of the heroine because one of the other characters revealed something to us, but not to her. Evelina seemed almost blind in comparison to me, but I really shouldn't blame her because I was the one with the other characters, not her, and I couldn't expect her to be a fly on the wall like me. If Ms. Holloway had narrowed the book down to a single voice, Evelina's, or even her, Tobias, and Nick, then the flow would have been much smoother.

Then we have Sherlock Holmes. In some ways, I think Ms. Holloway believes Evelina is more clever than the great detective. No, she is not. And by trying to declare that belief, however subtly, to me as a reader only made me think Evelina arrogant in her magical talents because she has something that Holmes lacks. Add to that the unrealistic tenor of Holmes' personality, and I didn't buy his addition to the story at all. She would have done better to develop this story in steampunk Victorian England utterly devoid of the great detective. I would have bought her story completely, instead I found the logical side of my brain saying, "Why would Holmes care about this?" or "He wouldn't act this way!" Ms. Holloway did herself a disservice by including the great detective.

"A Study in Silks" is, on the whole, very good. I love Ms. Holloway's writing style and her character development, but there is no excuse for the formatting or the length of the novel. I hope her next novel corrects some of the mistakes made in this one, especially chopping down the number of voices. I'll just have to wait and see.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Book Review: Winter Shadows by Casey Bond

Winter ShadowsWinter Shadows by Casey Bond
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

- I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This review is painful for me to write because I always try to be as nice as possible to authors, especially new ones. But, I just could not get into Winter Shadows. There was nothing to grab me, not the heroine, not the hero (either one), and none of the secondary characters. Claire is bland and one-dimensional and I can't tell the two "heroes" apart half of the time, their personalities are so similar. I understand she's trying to write Christian speculative fiction, but the message, whatever it might be, gets lost because she lacks skill.

Had her writing been more active, I might have actually invested emotionally in the story, but truthfully, she needs writing lessons. Either from a college or just by picking up books on writing from the library. Her passion is there, but her skill falls sadly short. I hope before Casey attempts a second book that she takes the time to train herself. Writing is a craft, like any other, and it requires honing. Passion alone doesn't cut it. Working on her writing skills is the first step she needs to take, doing both herself and her readership a huge favor.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Book Review: Burning Sky: A Novel of the American Frontier by Lori Benton

Burning Sky: A Novel of the American Frontier by Lori Benton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read Chapter One

When Willa Obenchain is kidnapped by Indians at the age of fourteen, she expects to never see her parents again. She adapts to her new culture with the Wolf Clan, her new life. She even eventually marries and has children. Then, in practically the blink of an eye, she loses everything and is left adrift. She has two choices. She can either follow join the Wolf Clan at Niagara where the British soldiers have promised refuse. Or she can return home to the parents she hasn't seen in twelve years. She chooses the latter and is on that journey home that she meets Neil MacGregor, a scientist/botanist who is cataloging the flora of the American frontier. Despite all of Willa's hopes that her family might still be where she left them, she finds her former home vacant. The townspeople do not trust her, and the man she once cared for as a young girl just beginning to blush into womanhood has turned into a man she does not recognize. Willa must choose her identity. Is she Willa Obenchain, the daughter of German immigrants? Or is she Burning Sky, the Mohawk maiden? Her clan brother, Joseph Tames-His-Horse, desperately wants her to return to the Wolf Clan, but the decision must be Willa's. Fortunately for her, she does not make it alone because God stands at her side.

I'm not sure what I expected when I picked up this book, but it certainly wasn't what Lori Benton delivered. Once I started reading "Burning Sky" I could hardly put it down. I finished the last 100 pages well into the wee hours one night because I could not stop reading, even knowing I had to go to work the next day. Ms. Benton has a distinct knack for storytelling. In the hands of any other writer, this same story might be flat or even mundane. But Ms. Benton brings Willa's tale to glorious life. Her writing style is reminiscent of classical authors, but without being overdone. She simply knows how much to describe and what to leave to the imagination.

The main characters are deliciously realistic. I struggle with most heroines of historic fiction, but not so with Willa. She is a tormented soul who has suffered much and lost much. She is a confused member of two distinctly different worlds. I sympathize with Willa, feel her pain, want to heal her, and above all, I want her to love again. Neil is also relatable. He is a compassionate Scotsman who loves Willa almost from the very beginning. He stands by her even when no one else will, and he defends her even if it means he might get hurt in the process. He is a loving, decent man. Which is what makes the story almost painful for me because I love Joseph Tames-His-Horse. It's not that I dislike Neil, only that I love Joseph and Burning Sky together. I know why Willa made her choices. I understand her logic, but a part of me still wishes for a different outcome.

I know that Ms. Benton has a contract for another book by Waterbrook. I hope this 2nd book will not be her last because I haven't loved a historic author this much in a long time. Most of the historic books I read receive 4 stars because they're good, maybe even great, but Ms. Benton has a blessed touch with her writing that makes me salivate for her second novel. I pray that recreates the same magical prose she has mastered with "Burning Sky."

 - I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Book Review: It Happened at the Fair by Deeanne Gist

It Happened at the Fair
It Happened at the Fair by Deeanne Gist

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cullen McNamara is frustrated as all get-out with his father for securing him a place at the Chicago World's Fair. Always a clever boy, Cullen invented an automatic sprinkler system for houses and barns. The Fair is everything he ever imagined it would be, but it turns out that his location in the Machinery Building is nearly deafening. And Cullen already struggles with his hearing at the best of times. He's nearly resigned himself to returning home since he can't even hear the few customers who might be interested in his invention. A stroke of good fortune comes his way, or maybe it's Providence, when Cullen discovers that the young lady he met on the very first day of the fair, Miss Della Wentworth, is actually a teacher for the deaf. She agrees to tutor him, and love blossoms at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.

I practically eat, sleep, and breathe the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Have you ever read The Devil in the White City Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson? I know, it's about a serial killer loose in Chicago at the same time, but it's also about the development of the Chicago World's Fair and that, to me, is far more interesting. I never imagined anyone would write a book that actually took place at the Fair! Yet there it was, merrily sitting on the library shelf, just waiting for me.

Deeanne Gist transported me to 1893. I could see the setting and all the buildings, everything. All right, I admit that if you aren't in love with the Fair like me than you might find it a little dull. Your loss, I'm afraid, because Deeanne has penned yet another winner of Christian historic fiction! I love Cullen! I love Della! There really isn't a single thing I don't love, unless it's that rather nasty short story she wrote that really could have gone unwritten. So, that short you keep seeing pop up? The prelude? Umm, it's gross, and avoid it all costs. "It Happened at the Fair" is brilliant! Her short, not so much.

Bravo, Deeanne, you've done it again! Now to wait on your next novel!

View all my reviews

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

 The mountain smoked beneath the moon.
The dwarves, they heard the tramp of doom.
They fled the hall to dying fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon.

- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

I spent the last year waiting for December 13th. It sounds absurd, but not a week went by that my thoughts did not turn towards Middle Earth and the journey of a hobbit and thirteen dwarves to reclaim a treasure and homeland. Sometimes, anticipation results in failure. I remember my excitement over the 2002 film Hidalgo and my total disappointment in it after seeing it in theaters.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Plethora of Christmas Ornaments!

All right, so I promised at least a few people to post photos of my tree, so here you have it!

I don't use garland anymore, but strings of gold beads.
You'll probably see them up-close in the next photos.

Meet Jack Frost! He's the newest edition to my ornament collection, a gift from my sweet sister because I love Rise of the Guardians so much. She even gave him to me early this year!

I'm sure it seems odd having Titanic on my tree, but it holds a purpose. One, as a reminder of the great and beautiful tragedy, and two, as a reminder of the lovely day I spent with Caitlin, Charity, and others at the Molly Brown House in Denver. We were in costume and it was magical.

Bilbo Baggins on the left, in honor of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug which hits theaters December 13th! And on the right, we have the Nutcracker Prince in human form. 

On the left is my favorite ballerina ornament, one that showed up in my stocking at least twelve years ago. And on the right is an antique postcard from the early 1900s. A gentleman was selling them at craft fairs last year. He framed them and everything, and it was just so beautiful I couldn't resist.

Caitlin found the ornament on the left sometime this year for me, and I found the pear at a lovely little antique store when I went for tea with friends.

Last but not least, the Hershey's Kiss a friend of mine gave me 17 years ago, when I still lived in Oregon. I was only about 11-years-old and I've treasured it ever since.

Monday, December 9, 2013

LOTR Blog Party Tag Questions

So, yes, I am participating in two blog parties at once. Good thing school is mostly over! But how could I resist one for The Lord of the Rings? I mean, come on, I've lived the last twelve years salivating to participate in one of these!

Nine tag questions to rule them all....

Classic Ramblings

Winter Wonderland Blog Party Week 1: A Merry Little Christmas

I'm participating in Natalie and Anna's Winter Wonderland Blog Party. Instructions on how to join are on both their blogs! But even if you don't join, I hope you'll have fun reading my posts. :)

1. What Christmas tree ornament holds the most sentimental value for you or the most memories?
It's a glass Hershey's Kiss ornament with a little goldish heart on one side, tied with a red ribbon. A friend of mine gave it to me about sixteen years ago and it's the one I always look for first when decorating the tree.

2. Favorite Christmas cookie?
Oh, there are so many to choose from! Maybe Norwegian Thumbprint Cookies. I'm pretty sure it's my dad's favorite Christmas cookie too. Funny, we haven't made them yet this year. Maybe I can do that tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

December 4th - The Nutcracker with Mikhail Baryshnikov

I was four-years-old the first time my mother took me to the ballet. It was in late November, and we went to see The Nutcracker. I've been smitten with the story ever since. Don't ask me who the dancers were because I have no idea, but the face of the Nutcracker Prince for me has always been and will always be Mikhail Baryshnikov. I had three heroes when I was a child: Macgyver, Luke Skywalker, and Mikhail. At least one of them was real.

Mikhail's Nutcracker warms my heart every time I see it. Every time I see a poster of him I wish I was the girl he lifted so tenderly into the air. I dreamed as a child and a young teenager that I was Clara. The ending to his Nutcracker is bitter-sweet, but that it makes all the more real.

So, join me now for Mikhail Baryshnikov's Nutcracker. May you love it as much as I do during this Christmas season.

P.s. If you can, find a DVD copy. I know our library has it, and I'm sure yours does to.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Veronica Roth, what are you doing to the world!!! a.k.a. When reviews ruin the ending!

I don't know whether to be furious or grateful to this one Amazon reviewer for totally spoiling the ending of Veronica Roth's Allegiant. But because I'm a nice person, I won't go into details about the spoiler that smacked me upside the head.

Have you ever stumbled on a review that completely ruins your desire to read a book? I mean, I haven't even had a chance to read Insurgent yet because of school, and now I don't really want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. I've got it checked out from the library on my Kindle and it expires in a few days, and I'm just going to let it expire. I know myself, and I know that I'll likely never finish this series.

The ending might fit in with the character development . . . or it might not. I'll never know. All I know is that Veronica Roth might have made a monumental mistake. No matter how much a person might dislike The Hunger Games trilogy, at least the ending is satisfying. A lot of readers aren't happy with Roth's ending, and I suspect that will affect how well her movies do at the box office. I don't want to see Divergent in theaters now. I really don't, and all because I found about the ending. Of course, even if I hadn't stumbled over that stupid spoiler, even if I had read all the way to the end of the series, I suspect that I would still hate the outcome and never want to see the movies. It's hard to believe how excited I was about the story when I first read Divergent several months ago. The book was so fascinating and I just couldn't put it down. Sad to see what's happened between then and now.

There's a few reasons why I don't read very many Nicholas Sparks books. First, the man never permits happy endings. And second, he never permits happy endings! Maybe he's written one book, one solitary book, that doesn't end with me blubbering into the pages. So I decided to stop reading because he's gotten formulaic. Back when he wrote The Notebook his style was still fresh. People didn't know what to expect from the story, but now, well he's given himself away as an enemy of the happily-ever-after scenario. Sorry, Nic, but I'm not putting myself through your emotional rigamarole anymore!

Translation: Veronica Roth, I'm not tolerating your heartstring manipulation either! I can almost forgive J. K. Rowling for hers, even though she still made some critical errors when it came to the fate of certain characters. But this is J. K. Rowling, and despite Veronica Roth's apparent Christian faith, she supposes she can do it better than Rowling. I may not live in a Rowling saturated world, but I appreciate her knack for storytelling, and at least she got the ending right.

Who knows, maybe this post will inspire me to finish Roth's Divergent series. Then again, maybe not.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Happy December 1st, My Darlings!

All right, so the way this works, I'm going to post something every day up until Christmas. Something that I find inspirational about the holiday season. Who knows, maybe I'll even snatch a photo of my sweet kitty being all cute and lovey-dovey under the Christmas tree.

But for the moment, we'll start off with Elvis singing "If Every Day Was Like Christmas."

Why this song? Because he's right. If every day was just like Christmas, what a wonderful world this would be.

So here, you have it, in honor of the King of Rock & Roll and the King of Kings, Elvis Presley singing "If Every Day Was Like Christmas."